Do You Solemnly Swear – Parshat Matot-Masei

Solemnly Swear

As Duncan and I began our journey into parenthood, we had all sorts of grand notions of the type of parents we would be.  Like other parents we know, we swore to each other that we would be the best possible role models. We promised to have all the best qualities we loved in our parents and none of the worst ones. We vowed to be fun, honest, and fair 24/7.  And then Shiri was born.

I’m not saying we went back on every promise, but we found out it was a lot harder to uphold those promises when we were living the reality of parenthood.  Limiting our own screen time to after the baby was asleep in bed was great in theory; however, being up at all hours of the night with a newborn almost always meant a 4:00 a.m. Facebook check.  We wanted to teach Shiri to be a healthy eater and to set healthy examples for her with our food and exercise choices, but some days just demand fries and a milkshake.  We had vowed to act one way, and hard as we try, we still aren’t always in line with those expectations we set for ourselves.

The problem with broken promises to ourselves is they often don’t have enough of an impact to really change our behavior.  Think of New Year’s resolutions or simply trying to change a bad habit.  The problem with broken promises to others is there’s often too much of an impact because of the resulting loss of trust in the relationship.

This week we read the final sections of text from the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar.  Parshiyot Matot and Masei begin with the discussion of the different vows Israelites might make, and then they detail the requests of the various tribes as they get ready to enter the Promised Land.  The chapters end with the final placements of all the tribes as they prepare to divide their land inheritance.

Promises play a role in both of these sections. In Matot, certain types of vows are identified and explained, including vows of married couples to God and each other. In Masei, the tribes make requests of Moshe, and Moshe responds, vowing to give certain parcels of land to certain people.  These are verbal agreements, once again showing the power of words.

From the creation of the world through God’s word alone, to the myriad laws on how we use our words to create or destroy, the power of speech is identified as one of the unique gifts of a human being.  More specifically, our human communication, when combined with our memory and our empathy, gives us the unique ability to create and enact self-imposed legislation.  Put another way, our speech can represent not only the exchange of words, but the exchange of tangible, touchable things.

The parshiyot this week remind us that our words have this power and that whether or not we can feel it, there is weight to the promises we make to ourselves and each other.

Making Memories – Parshat Matot-Ma’asei 5773

The great Torah commentator, Kevin Arnold of The Wonder Years, once said: “Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” As people, we live through memory. Whether it is the first memory we have, or our last memory of another person, our lives are largely based on our ability to remember the world as we’ve experienced it.  When we get together with a group of friends we haven’t seen for a while, we might reminisce about the old days, about the “easier times” and the fun we used to have.

Our Torah portions this week, Parshat Matot and Masei, contain a brief recap of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt, another warning against worshipping other gods, instructions for the division of the land when they enter Israel, outlines for creating levitical cities of refuge and a piece on inheritance.  Based on this list, it becomes clear that the Torah is attempting to prepare the Israelites for the change of pace as they enter a permanent homestead.

At the forefront of parshat Masei is the recalling of the journey the Israelites took as they left Egypt for the Promised Land.  It begins:  “These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.  Moses recorded the starting points of their vigorous marches as directed by the Lord.”  And the text goes on to note the places the Israelites hit on their journey.  This list of locations reads like a walk down memory lane.  It’s basically Uncle George’s slideshow of every stop on the family trip, except in this case we don’t have any photos and fancy iMovie transitions to go with it, just the narrator reciting a list of places and stages along the route.  But in a way it’s better without the pictures because our imaginations create a mental photo album of this incredible journey.  And it’s not only a recap of the places visited, but also a reminder of God’s presence throughout their journey.

The capturing of memory, of holding onto the things you love, the things you are and the things you never want to lose, has evolved in recent years.  In the past I have accompanied the 6th graders at Levine Academy on their Texas trip.  About halfway through the trip my first year, I had an epiphany.  I was wondering why we had to allow so much extra time at each stop we visited, until I noticed the students taking in the journey from behind the lenses of their digital cameras.  Every moment from the time we got on the bus on Monday morning until we said goodbye on Thursday night was captured in some way, shape or form on a digital device.  Students took thousands of pictures so they wouldn’t “miss a thing.”

But I wonder how much we miss when we’re trying so hard to save the moment rather than living in it. I thought back to my own childhood, when you had to not only pay for the film, but pay for the developing, thus making excessive picture taking an expensive past time.  And if you wanted video, you had to reserve a certain amount of packing space for blank tapes. The ease with which we can identify and relive a journey now because of these new ways of recording it is wonderful, but what happens to the experience when only viewed from behind the camera lens?  What is the impact on the journey if it isn’t experienced firsthand?

In parshat Masei, the Torah takes us down memory lane, but not with twelve megapixel digital images or a cheesy montage that always, ALWAYS includes the Green Day song “Time of Your Life.”  It’s just words. It’s the narrative of a people finding freedom and finding their identity.  The Midrash imagines this section of text as God telling Moses to write down the journey so that they can look back and see what an amazing journey it actually was.  God doesn’t ask Moses to etch a picture on a stone. Words, written words, is how God asked for the journey to be remembered.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but how many thousands more are needed to tell you what happened the moment before that picture? And the moment before that? What a picture doesn’t tell you is the back story, the intricate details of how that moment in time came to be.

Everywhere in our lives, we are constantly offered passive ways to help us remember what we’re doing, or where we’ve been.  We can sort through our emails to see how conversations played out, we set reminders on our smart phones and run through our call log to see who we’ve talked to and how our weeks have been.  We go on Facebook and see who we’ve become friends with, what pictures people have posted from a trip together.  But there’s no story to it, nothing that links it all together.

The Torah is that kind of record for us as the Jewish people, and the more we read it over and over again, the more it becomes a part of our lives. Regardless of how much of the Torah you chose to take as fact, Torah is the perfect example of memory in The Wonder Years definition. It symbolizes what we love, what we are, and what we never want to lose. Parshat Masei reminds us that as we begin or end any journey, it is important to take note, to write down what it is we’ve learned, where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and how far we’ve come.